Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
These timeless spiritual readings still provide special wisdom and insight for readers grappling with life’s thorniest philosophical dilemmas.
Growing up in the 1950s, I felt lost amid the materialism and shallow sunniness of the postwar culture; I longed for some overarching meaning. Then I came across books by two novelists, Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger, that opened my eyes to an entirely new way of looking at the world. I had not known that books could do this. These novels made life seem a much more mysterious and rich experience than I had imagined. At heart, they were books about spiritual journeys, and they made spirituality seem hip and wonderful. They also introduced me to the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood,” thereby ultimately changing my life, for in time I gave up a lucrative career as a missile engineer to become a novelist and teacher of literature. Today, these novels have become spiritual classics, timeless books that provide special wisdom and insight for readers grappling with life’s thorniest philosophical dilemmas. The novel as an art form originally came into being as bourgeois entertainment concerned with everyday matters, such as money, success, and ambition. Paradoxically, its very concreteness, which requires the novelist to create plausible characters operating in a credible world, makes the novel an ideal vehicle for exploring spiritual themes and presenting unorthodox worldviews. The best-selling novelists of our time seem not to understand this; but over the past century or so, the form’s masters have put this opportunity to especially good use. Their handiwork includes, among others, the following 10 spiritual classics (including a novella, a short story collection, and one novel-like sacred scripture). I cherish these volumes as old friends and teachers; your summer reading experience will be greatly enhanced by packing one or more of these treasures in your travel bag.
1. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
This beautiful little jewel of a novel relates the life story of a man born into a wealthy Brahmin family in India in the time of Buddha. Siddhartha leaves his family as a young man and, along with his pal Govinda, heads to the forest to join a group of wandering ascetics in search of the meaning of life. The book is divided into three parts: Siddhartha as ascetic, as sensualist, and finally as ferryman on the river. There, under the tutelage of an old, unlettered wise man, Vasudeva, Siddhartha, with his fierce honesty, tries to find his salvation. Hesse struggles to find the words to convey experiences of bliss and transcendence which go beyond where language can travel. At one point, Siddhartha meets Buddha himself and, in a beautiful scene, tells Buddha that although he knows Buddha has found the answer, Siddhartha must seek it on his own—just as Buddha did. In the extremely moving conclusion, Siddhartha realizes his original aim by reaching a state of enlightenment and compassion for all.
2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Some think this Everest of a novel the greatest ever written. On the surface, it tells a tale of family feuding and parricide, but underneath, it is really a philosophical quest for a spiritual future for humanity and for Russia. Dostoevsky has divided himself into three characters: Dmitry, the passionate and sensual man; Ivan, the brilliant but skeptical intellectual; and Alyosha, the youngest brother, a follower of a Russian holy man. Dostoevsky knows that a novel is only as strong as its villain, so he gives many of the strongest lines to Ivan, who seeks to discredit God on the grounds that even if things work out all right in the future, he cannot forgive God for the suffering of children in the present. The brothers’ arguments are really the dialogues of a soul with itself; we can see that the author is risking everything and is not sure where this will all lead. Dostoevsky is arguing with the most powerful of his own doubts, so we find it incredibly moving when, at the end, this author drawn to darkness and violence turns his back on European materialism and cynicism and passionately embraces a spiritual view of life.
3. The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing
This is the last in the five-volume series of autobiographical novels called “The Children of Violence,” which trace the life story of Martha Quest. The first four books portray Martha’s youth and young womanhood among the English settlers in colonial, racially divided British Rhodesia. In this book, Martha leaves Africa and is living in postwar London, a bombed-out city where the walls of buildings are not the only boundaries that have come down. The line between good and evil was much clearer under the African sun; here Martha enters a world where such distinctions are lost at a dizzying pace. Her friend Lynda undergoes a personal breakdown, prefiguring Martha’s own dissolution. Lessing’s genius is to see that this time of social fragmentation and personal disorder can be welcomed as the prelude to a spiritual rebirth. This book moves from politics toward spirituality and reflects Lessing’s honesty and concern.
4. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
The seven Glass family children have all been prodigies on the radio show “It’s a Wise Child,” but now the youngest, Franny, has returned from college to the family apartment in Manhattan and taken to her bed in a kind of nervous breakdown, sick of the world and unceasingly muttering a Jesus prayer. This is especially disconcerting because Franny and her next oldest brother, Zooey, are not only versed in all of the learning of the West, but have also been introduced to Eastern wisdom by their two oldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy. Salinger brings numerous key insights from Eastern wisdom into the heart of the American novel, and takes us on a spiritual journey in which the worth of all learning is called into question. Like Dostoevsky, Salinger risks everything. We discover with Franny that the answer she was looking for was right under her nose, and therefore close to her heart.
5. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
All of Kerouac’s work constitutes a dialogue between his Buddhist and Hindu learning and the residues of his Catholic upbringing. This autobiographical novel, his most joyous and optimistic work, centers on his meeting and friendship with Gary Snyder (here called “Japhy Ryder”), the American poet and student of Chinese and Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism. Kerouac, the child of immigrants and raised in a Massachusetts mill town, is guided by Gary Snyder, Oregon mountain man and anthropologist, in treks up mountains toward “heaven,” and in his first steps toward an ecological view and a path of personal independence. Kerouac, in turn, becomes our guide to the spiritual possibilities inherent in the grandeur and beauty of the great American Northwest. As Kerouac and Snyder trade Buddhist one-liners and bring Eastern thought into contact with native American influences like Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, we realize we are witnessing a rebirth of American transcendentalism. The book is filled with a youthful energy and idealism that makes you wish you were there with them during a time when anything seemed possible for young Americans and for the American novel. See also5 Must-Read Summer Books
6. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
This powerful novella is a classic of both existentialist and spiritual literature. One day Ivan Ilyich (the Russian name for “John Doe”), a moderately successful lawyer and minor judge, learns that due to a small injury, he is quickly dying. He has never thought about this possibility, and it tears away all the structure of his life and the values and assumptions which have supported him. This is why the existentialists revere this novel: It shows man stripped of all certainties, helpless and alone in a world he can’t know. But Tolstoy doesn’t stop there. He knows that this forlorn state is exactly the precondition for seeing deeply, and he shows how Ivan Ilyich, through the devotion and faith of his peasant servant, finds his way to a renewed faith in his fellow people, and to a vision in which death is superseded by spiritual awakening. Because Tolstoy has presented the shock of Ivan’s sudden despair so vividly, we find Ivan’s victory over his despair all the more heartfelt and moving.
7. Island by Aldous Huxley
In this, his last novel, Huxley uses a lifetime of thinking about human possibilities to create an island utopia that illustrates his hopes for the future of humankind. The Indian Ocean island of Pala is a kind of paradise, created with the inherited wisdom of its two founders, a Buddhist Raja and a commonsensical Scottish physician. The goal of life on Pala is to merge with the clear light, not to accumulate possessions; the island’s philosophy is a mix of Eastern thought (particularly tantric Buddhism, which does not retreat from the world, but uses it for higher purposes), Western science (but with limited technology), unrepressed sexuality, and constant mindfulness. (The island’s fauna include mynah birds trained to say, “Attention! Attention!”) Huxley’s ideas about childrearing, psychedelic visions, and tending to the dying were far ahead of his time, and his portrait of a utopia in which those ideas are implemented will intrigue anyone who is interested in a more spiritually directed society.
8. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
(Everything That Rises Must Converge), Flannery O’Connor put the twisted vision and dark humor of Southern Gothic fiction to spiritual purposes. Though O’Connor, a rural Southerner, knew she would die young of lupus, she remained a faithful Catholic. Indeed, she was determined to undermine the ’50s worldview which saw science and logic as steadily leading us to becoming a society based on rationality, consumerism, and progress, which would make God superfluous. Acutely aware of the extremes of religion in the South, she nonetheless preferred that “God-haunted” region to a bland world produced by advertising. She believed the supernatural lay just below the surface of the everyday, requiring the spiritual artist to portray the mundane world with great care and accuracy, however bizarre some of its events and characters might be. O’Connor saw the potential for mysterious grace in any place where the spirit, though twisted, was still alive. Her writing is powerful, at times violent, often hilarious. Sometimes I find it best to read her a little at a time; her unconquerable wit and her deep, abiding spirituality always shine through.
9. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The “passage” here is made by an older Englishwoman, Mrs. Moore, traveling to India to see her son, a British civil servant. She heads East in search of a larger view, but initially she encounters fragmentation. Hindu, Muslim, and British India are not merely different worldviews but virtually parallel worlds. Most of the English keep to themselves, but Mrs. Moore ventures out into a teeming world in which the natural is always deeply infused with the supernatural, where “to realize what God is seems more important than to do what God wants.” Forster portrays her spiritual journey so authoritatively that we find ourselves, like Mrs. Moore, enlightened and overwhelmed by her new world, as she tentatively feels her way toward a comprehensive nonattachment which is finally more Hindu than British.
10. The Bhagavad-Gita translated by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda
If I had to choose one book to take to a desert island, this would be it. The ageless “Song of God” is, of course, a magnificent, sacred scripture and not technically a novel, but its narrative form makes it read like one. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, who turns to the God Krishna, his friend, for explanations and advice on life. Krishna lays out an entire worldview, the philosophy of Vedanta, one of the great achievements of human thought. Christopher Isherwood, an English novelist, and Swami Prabhavananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and Isherwood’s guru, translate the Gita in a simple, modern style, alternating between prose and poetry without sacrificing the majesty and wisdom of this ancient story. Krishna gives Arjuna simple advice which I have found so useful in my own life, such as not to do anything for results, but rather for God: “You can have the work,” he tells Arjuna, “but not the products of the work.”
Gerald Rosen is the author of five novels, including Mahatma Gandhi in a Cadillac, and the nonfiction work Zen in the Art of J. D. Salinger.